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Paula Jones gone but not forgotten


BOSTON -- It's been a week since Judge Susan Webber Wright saved us from finding out whether or not the president of the United States has distinguishing characteristics on his genitals.

For this rescue operation, and for spoiling all the fun, the Arkansas judge has been vilified as a traitor to her gender. She has been accused of making the workplace safe for sexual harassers everywhere and bringing glee to the hearts of bosses who will soon be fearlessly dropping trousers -- at least once per employee -- in the corner office.

Now, I confess that when the judge dismissed the Paula Jones case, my own reaction was limited to four mumbled little words: I told you so.

Months ago, to much disbelief, I passed along the tip that even if Paula's tale was true, it was not legally sexual harassment. Not every piece of boorish behavior is against the law, nor is every pass sex discrimination. Not all creeps are criminals.

Jones vs. Clinton was a lousy candidate for the Sexual Harassment Poster Case of the year. It was never clear that President Clinton was Ms. Jones' "boss" in the real meaning of that word, nor that this alleged encounter was "workplace" discrimination, nor that she suffered employment consequences, nor that he created a "hostile environment."

So, Judge Wright was right. But her decision has been interpreted as (1) instituting a "one-grope" ruling and (2) introducing a massive backlash, a sort of anti-Anita effect on working women across the country. Anita Hill ushered in a rash of sexual harassment suits, and Judge Wright ushered them out again.

To this analysis, I will add one more word: Whoa.

Chilling effect

First of all, if you are looking for a chilling effect on sexual harassment cases, try the wind blowing from the Army. After former Sgt. Maj. Gene McKinney was found not guilty, he decided to sue one of his six accusers for $1.5 million. In the parlance of New England weathermen, that's what we call the Montreal Express. Brr . . .

Second of all, while Judge Wright was considering a case that was groundless, the Supreme Court proved they know a hostile environment when they see one. In the Oncale case last month they expanded -- not contracted -- the law to include single-sex harassment.

But more important, in the wake of the Arkansas judgment, corporations are not popping champagne corks and tossing away their sexual harassment guidelines.

Yes, there are bad actors, there are bad workplaces, there are co-workers and bosses who won't turn off the charm or the X-rated videos until the lawyers make them. More women quit than sue, many are afraid of retaliation and others spend too much energy figuring out how to say no without losing their jobs.

But a passel of companies now understand that sexual harassment is a kind of canary in the corporate mine. An environment that is hostile to women is polluted generally.

As Freada Klein, who runs a consulting firm on workplace bias, says, "Harassment and discrimination travel in a pack. These behaviors occur in a work environment with high rates of other forms of inappropriate uses of power." For example, the random public humiliation of employees.

Ms. Klein acknowledges that there's a "growing chasm between women with mobility in the work force" and women without it. But companies that want to recruit and hold the best and the brightest have become aware of the effect of a hostile environment on turnover.

The big-ticket victories against Mitsubishi, Home Depot and State Farm Insurance focused the corporate minds wonderfully. But there is a cost accounting that goes beyond court. It's in employees who've left or lost their motivation. It's in the time lost after the meeting when an employee is on the phone with business school buddies letting off steam about the "jokes." It's in the company reputation.

Which brings us back to the chief executive officer in the White House and the lessons from Arkansas.

I confess sympathy for Paula Jones the person if not the plaintiff. She got a makeover, a Mercedes and a con job from the folks using her in their chess game.

But did the president get away with it? Whatever happened in that hotel room, any CEO can tally up the costs of such a case, and I do not mean Bob Bennett's hourly rate.

In the real world, the chill wind blows both ways. What company wants to bundle up against an accusation like that? Today the Clinton Enterprise has a long trail of names and faces, rattling like cans tied to the presidential limousine.

Sexual misconduct retains its place as a liability on the business balance sheet. It's calculated in no small measure by what we see in Washington: a huge debit of respect.

Ellen Goodman is a syndicated columnist.

Pub Date: 4/10/98

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